The Deadly Collateral Damage from ISIS

by Graham E. Fuller

Enthusiasts for US or NATO intervention to destroy ISIS are lining up—especially among those who have never shrunk from any US military intervention in the Middle East. Some even invoke a call for initiating a “World War IV.” 

While there is every reason for deep skepticism towards yet another (failing) exercise in US imperial interventionism, a powerful case nonetheless exists for an exception here—as to why, in the ISIS case today, a truly broad international coalition should undertake the destruction of the territorial, administrative, military and social structure of the ISIS “state” in Syria and Iraq. Non-interventionism by the West in the Middle East, normally a sound principle, cannot be taken in every case as an invariable principle of foreign policy.

Why make the exception here? Given the choreographed brutality of ISIS policies it is very hard indeed not to vigorously oppose ISIS. The victims of ISIS terrorism are tragic to behold—in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey—as well as in Paris. But there are perhaps deeper reasons than immediate terrorist attacks that make (truly international) military intervention, in this specific case now, an important task. That argument hinges on the fateful “collateral damage” wrought by ISIS.

We witness this most vividly in the frightening resurgence of extreme right-wing, nationalist, “nativist” and neo-fascist reactions to ISIS in Europe and the US. Such reactions are of course virulently anti-Muslim—in which the actions of a few jihadi fanatics are generating a blanket western condemnation of an entire civilization and all its members. Over-the-top and hysterical Republican campaign rhetoric may fade after an election, but it is already deepening its mark and impact upon US political discourse, in permanently damaging ways. This is far from the American ideal of receiving the “huddled masses” of the oppressed on American shores. It is deeply damaging to American integrationism and sparks racism that extends beyond Islamophobia.

But worse, ISIS and its attacks summon up deeper anti-immigration impulses all across Europe, North America and beyond. This is the reality: flight from large parts of the world will be the hallmark of the rest of this century as people flee hardship, poverty, war, plague, injustice, hopelessness, and climate degradation. This is not the time, especially in large immigrant-based societies such as the US, Canada and Australia, for a hardening of hearts against the phenomenon of immigration. Mass migration will have to be managed, dealt with creatively at the source, and involve major expenditures—but it is coming.

The refugee flow now caused by ISIS poses a deep, long-term threat to the very nature of the EU experiment—that is surely a signal innovation in human political history. In simplest terms, Europe will easily and quickly find itself drowning, even with the best of intentions, in trying to to provide shelter, social services and social integration. European societies represent highly distinctive and discrete socio-cultural entities that are relatively small and fragile in the face of massive refugee surges. European populations and territories are small, dense, and culturally highly integrated. There is only one Holland, one Poland, or one Norway in this world; they cannot be replicated elsewhere. Europe, and especially Germany under Angela Merkel, have made honorable and noble efforts to promote a vision of an accommodating Europe, but Europe’s receptive  capacity is severely limited. This civilizational experiment is at risk.

Furthermore, Angela Merkel, arguably the only responsible adult in power in Europe today, is threatened by backlash to her generous pro-immigration values. Europe will be much the poorer and dangerously blind on East-West issues if she falls.

Meanwhile ISIS is serving to radicalize a small but younger generation of disaffected Muslim youth in the West and elsewhere who crave Muslim authenticity, restoration of Muslim power and principled statehood, and a return to the idealized values of early Islam. (Sadly for them, they won’t find it in the Islamic State, and many will die in the quest.) But it is easier to migrate to an “Islamic state” structure than to join up with al-Qaeda somewhere in the mountains of Yemen.

And ISIS has now turned Syria into an intense cockpit of a dozen nations fighting a proxy war on its soil—something other terrorist organizations have not managed. It has driven Russian-Western confrontation (unnecessarily) into deeper confrontation. We could be looking at the Balkans on the eve of World War I. Erdogan’s recent irresponsible willingness to shoot down a Russian aircraft in this volatile border area raises extremely dangerous prospects of wider confrontation, even by error. Fortunately his dangerous bid for full NATO backing backfired.

Russia of course has undeniable longstanding and legitimate interests in Syria. But Russia’s new role in Syria—potentially quite positive—is lending grist to the viscerally anti-Russian contingent in Washington for whom the very idea of a Russian military role in the Middle East is an ideological affront to American domination of Middle Eastern land and skies. No other terrorist organization has accomplished this.

The evolution of ISIS has operationalized and entrenched the worst of the ugly and violent Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, even if Saudi Wahhabism does not directly advocate violence itself. Violence is the ultimate logic of Wahhabi denunciation and delegitimization (takfir) of other Muslims, even though Islam professes that no Muslim can judge the beliefs of another Muslim—only God can.

The significant role of the Kurds on the barricades against neighboring ISIS has now driven Turkish foreign policy in ever more dangerous, obsessive and authoritarian directions.

The very territoriality and state pretensions of ISIS are what distinguishes it from other terrorist groups driven by much the same ideology.

Warning: Even if a broad-based international coalition succeeds in destroying ISIS as an institution in Syria and Iraq, no one should expect that there will be no more terror issuing from the Middle East. That will not happen until the deeper causes of Muslim political crisis and disaffection are dealt with. But a formal state territory and infrastructure will have been dismantled. International political solution in Syria becomes slightly more feasible.

Finally, yes, the Middle East desperately needs a reform agenda. But Muslims there will not be able to bring something like that about in the middle of ongoing wars, killings, interventions, and recrudescent dictatorships.

These are the grounds for urgency of international action against ISIS now. Terrorism will not go away after ISIS is destroyed. You cannot bomb radicalizing environments and soul-searing, grievances out of existence. But ISIS in Syria will cease to be a geographical rallying point. Syria  will eventually be able to go back to being a state, however miserably administered.

For many it is reassuring to view the problem as residing in Islam rather than in inherent political, social and economic problems of the region. The real question is, when will both the West and East deal with the complex and long-standing specific components of anger and hostilities between the two sides. The presence of ISIS has done more to exacerbate this “civilizational conflict” than anything else since 9/11. (And East-West friction did not begin with 9/11.)

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). This article reprinted, with permission, from

Guest Contributor

Articles by guest writers.